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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Getting A Quick Grip on LightZone

by Ken Tanaka
The growth of digital photography's acceptance and sophistication is spawning a new generation of tools aimed principally at making photographers' workflows more efficient. Adobe's Photoshop has unassailably occupied the pinnacle of image editing tools for a very long time, and will likely continue to do so. But Photoshop has grown to become quite a behemoth that serves a broad spectrum of users. As photographers we generally use only a small, core subset of its vast array of tools. Making common, simple image adjustments with Photoshop can sometimes seem like doing yard work with a bulldozer.

Today a new generation of tools, such as Adobe's Lightroom and Apple's Aperture, is just beginning to emerge in recognition of photographers' specialized needs. While LightZone does not attempt to deliver the inclusive image processing environments that Aperture and Lightroom do, it's nevertheless an excellent example of this new generation of image processing tools designed to deliver more intuitive and efficient capabilities to photographers.

I'll be frank. When I took my first swings with LightZone I was not immediately charmed. Although it's billed as being "intuitive," 10+ years working with Photoshop must have established a new sense of intuition in my psyche. Tonal curves with control points are intuitive to me. Luminance histograms with 3-point level sliders are intuitive to me. LightZone's stack of gray bars underneath a jagged gray-scale thumbnail of my image was not intuitive to me. So I set the demo aside.

But having since spent some quality time with LightZone I've given it a permanent spot in my quiver of image editing arrows. I don't consider myself a LightZone maestro yet, but I think I can at least help others get a quick grip on what LightZone is and to get past some initial misconceptions.

Rather than attempt to duplicate the excellent LightZone overview that Uwe Steinmueller presents at or to retrace some of the many thoughtful comments that have already been posted here on T.O.P., I'll present a brief fly-over of the product in a Q&A format.

Q: Is this some type of weird product for Ansel Adams nuts?
A: This may seem like an odd question but it's the one that first came to my mind when I saw the LightZone name. The short answer is no. Although Adams might have liked LightZone it really has nothing to do with his (in)famous "Zone System." Nor is it primarily aimed at landscape photographers (another initial misimpression I had). It's an effective tool for any type of photography.

Q: What makes LightZone different?
A: In a single sentence, LightZone's user interface design for tonality adjustments is what makes it different than any other image editor. LightZone doesn't really enable you to do anything to an image that you could not do with Photoshop or many other editors. But its "zone mapper / zone finder" interface can often get you to the main goal of your editing quicker.

For example, when you first load a camera raw image file (or a DNG file) into LightZone you will see a "zone finder" (the gray-scale thumbnail) and a "zone map" (the stacked gray bars). These represent approximately eight f-stops of exposure in half-stop increments. (Each gray bar in the zone mapper represents 1/2 stop.) As you move your mouse over the zone mapper the corresponding areas of exposure in the zone finder will light up in yellow. That's very cool.

But here's where the magic really starts. By raising or lowering the divisions between those zone map bars you effectively adjust the luminance of those exposure zones as well as the contrast between those zones. These adjustments can be made to the entire image or be limited to specific regions that you outline using any of LightZone's region masking tools (bezier curves, splines, or polygons). You can stack any number of these zone map adjustments as you work and, rather like Photoshop's layers, you can name them to keep track of their purpose.

LightZone features other common editing tools, such as an hsl adjustment, general contrast mask, sharpness filter, et. al. Each of these ancillary tools can also apply to either the entire image or to a specific masked region. But LightZone's crown jewel is clearly its zone mapper and zone finder.

Q: Is LightZone just a RAW image converter?
A: No. It's certainly a very worthy raw converter and shines when fed 16-bit images fresh from a camera sensor. But it's also perfectly capable of working on 8-bit JPG image files. When opening a JPG, however, you won't be greeted by an initial zone map. LightZone creates initial zone maps for raw images based, apparently, on a default profile for the camera identified in the file.

Q: Will LightZone save me any time?
A: Probably not initially, but with just a little familiarity it very well might save you a great deal of time. I recently had a very short time to prepare an image for a magazine. I cannot display the image here (until it's published) but it was scene of a theatrical performance on a large sailboat at night that required some significant luminance balance adjustments. I could have used Photoshop to make the adjustments but instead chose to give LightZone a try. I finished the job in less than two minutes (well, mostly...see below). It would certainly have taken me at least 10-15 minutes in Photoshop.

Q: Sounds promising. What's the bad news?
A: LightZone is a version 1.x product at this writing. Errors and omissions are to be expected, so it would be a bit unfair to be too critical at this writing. Here are a few gotchas that I've found a bit vexing.

Printing: Yes, you can print an image. Yes you can specify a color profile at print time but you cannot use a profile to soft-proof during editing (see below). The results I've gotten when printing to an Epson R2400 (using LightZone-managed color) have not been keepers but I'm not sure why.

Metadata lost: LightZone does not preserve an image's metadata, such as the IPTC and Exif exposure records. Remember that sailboat image I mentioned above? Well, fortunately I checked its metadata before I transmitted it to the magazine. Mostly gone! A quick trip to Photoshop remedied the problem, but it's really a detail that should have been caught even in a 1.x version.

Zone map controls: The zone mapper is an entirely manual control. The only way to make adjustments is to drag zone boundaries with your mouse or tablet sylus. It really needs to offer a numerical entry method and/or an arrow-based control. The boundaries between zones and zone locks get extremely narrow and we don't all have the steady hands of 18 year olds any more.

No provision for working color space or soft proofing: You can specify a color profile when you save LightZone edited images. But you cannot specify a working profile for a newly opened image. This is a matter that really should be remedied soon as it lies at the heart of tonality adjustment judgements.

Sluggish re-rendering: I admit that I've become spoiled by Photoshop's generally unobtrusive re-rendering speed. It seems that LightZone's translucent rendering progress indicator spends a great deal of time on the screen. You can control the frequency of re-renderings but I suspect most Photoshop users won't welcome having to think about such matters.

File formats: LightZone saves its results (and edit status) principally into 16-bit TIF files. It sure would be nice if it could write its edit status metadata into the Adobe DNG file format and/or to side-car XMP files for manufacturer-proprietary raw files. One more set of files, particularly large files, is not something many of us want or need.

LightZone is the first truly innovative image editor I've seen in a long time. I cannot say that it's more powerful than Photoshop's facilities but it does offer a very clever and efficient way to accurately edit image tonality. It will not represent a full-bodied single editing solution for most users, at least not at this writing. But its development has reached a point where it's a genuinely useful tool and worth at least a look by most serious photographers. The full version seems a bit pricey but the new "RT" version offers the majority of the product's value for a much more affordable price.

Personally, I wonder if we'll see either Apple or Adobe buy the product and integrate it into Aperture or Lightroom within the next year or so. It seems like just the kind of feature draw that would give either of these products a compelling boost.

Posted by: KEN TANAKA


Blogger johnbeardy said...

Good article, Ken, and a fair summary of a fascinating product. As for potential purchasers, you forgot Microsoft who surely want a raw processor to go alongside iView....

1:21 AM  
Blogger robert e said...

Thanks for the thorough description. One quibble, though: it sounds to me like the program has everything to do with Adams' Zone System. So states the web site, as well: "LightZone is based on photographic principles and on Ansel Adams' Zone System."

3:08 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"One quibble, though: it sounds to me like the program has everything to do with Adams' Zone System."

I suppose you could say that any photographic scheme that depends on dividing pictures up into tonal areas bears some relation to
"the zone system." But the commonalities are cursory at best, and trying to claim the connection doesn't really do much to illuminate what LightZone is, what it does well, or how it's used. More to the point is that "the zone system" is one of those great landmarks of iconography, an anchor-point, that offers much more in the way of resonance than in descriptiveness.

In other words, yes and no.


6:07 AM  
Blogger Robert Roaldi said...

Wow, an inexpensive alternative to overpriced bloatware. I hope the software giants don't buy these guys out.

I used to use the highly featured (for its time) and underpriced Micrografx Picture Publisher but they were bought out by Corel, who killed the product. Micrografx'es other product, Draw, was one third the price of Corel's competing product, and it's gone now too.

Gotta love that free market. Always gets me what I want at the price I can afford. :)

7:39 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

Wow - that actually looks very cool. I love the ability to work with color / luminosity ranges.

11:45 AM  
Blogger Peter Smith said...

A couple of comments:

>Zone map controls: ... The boundaries between zones and zone locks get extremely narrow and we don't all have the steady hands of 18 year olds any more.

Tonality control in LightZone should be made with stacked ZoneMappers. Successive ZoneMappers add more finesse and eliminate the cited concern.

>No provision for working color space or soft proofing: You can specify a color profile when you save LightZone edited images. But you cannot specify a working profile for a newly opened image. This is a matter that really should be remedied soon as it lies at the heart of tonality adjustment judgements.

I disagree with the last statement. To edit a photo you do not really need to specify an RGB workspace. LighZone reads the space of the source files, interprets those correctly and operates over a very large space.

4:58 PM  
Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

Peter: Thank you for your comments.

The importance of my "color space" and "soft-proofing" remarks are related principally, but not exclusively, to printing. You may very well make adjustments to an image in LZ that look perfect on-screen. But the printed results will likely look very different depending on your paper and printer choice. The ability to edit tonality while simulating your ultimate paper and ink choices is crucial for avoiding frustration and wasting expensive paper and ink.

The alternative (that I've been using as a stop-gap fix) is to chunk away in LZ, save a TIF and then go to the ImagePrint RIP to judge the final results and, sometimes, print the image. Usually I've had to go to Photoshop to make paper/ink profile-specific adjustments (which have often been substantial for color images) before the actual print can be made. Obviously, this is a pretty awkward process and I've not followed it very much.

I really do think that if LightZone persists as a stand-alone product the developer will have to tackle the formidable hurdle of being able to apply ICC profiles to an image for proofing.

9:31 PM  
Blogger Peter Smith said...

Ken: I don't disagree that a soft-proofing function is useful and it would be nice to have in a future version of LightZone. My comment was directed to the product's editing workspace - where I think Light Crafts has done a great job automating it all.

12:59 AM  

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